With thanks to Kayla Noriko Tange and Hailey Loman
In the archive of Private Practices, white Hollinger boxes open to reveal red-hot Pleaser platform heels sheathed in tissue paper. A push-up bra with rubber lips puckers up for a kiss. Filed within acid-free manila folders are a rhinestone necklace spelling out the word “whore,” a plastic top with “blowjob bib” in bubbly print, and a Hello Kitty face towel. Remnants of glitter adhere to the garments, and the heels are still impressed with the dark imprints of dancing feet.
Private Practices is the first archival collection of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) sex worker material. Organized by the non-profit organization Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) and artist Kayla Noriko Tange, also known as Coco Ono, the collection is archived in an unassuming space on the upper floor of a Chinatown plaza, formerly an Asian massage parlor. Still resonant with the presence of Asian bodies performing and providing care, this space is a radiant index of Asian labor, art, and pleasure. Its politics is explicit as a response to the March 16, 2021 shooting spree that targeted Asian women at massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, and as a collection that works to “address anti-Asian violence by locating it narrowly in the experience of AAPI sex workers.”1 As such, it collects ephemera donated by AAPI sex workers as an act of resistance to the “systemic misogyny and racism that pervades our country,” where the use of the possessive presents a claim to national and cultural belonging through apparel that does not express uniformity, but rather nonconformity of a sexually transgressive stripe.2
Creators of records in the Private Practices collection hail from many different forms of practice: from Tange, an “Erotic Conceptualist,” to “Tantric Goddess” and “Sacred Activist” Mariko Passion, to “Drag King Extraordinaire” Wang Newton.3 Model, dancer, and showgirl Lola Chan, artist Emily Christine Velez Nelms, performance artist and comedian Riv, and dominatrix Kim Ye (Mistress Lucy) are among the ranks of the star-studded creators of the collection, which also includes anonymous contributors and continues to welcome new donations. Founded in 2013, LACA is a public archive that collaborates with artists to create collections with “a special emphasis on underexposed artistic modes of expression,” and the Private Practices collection is open to the public by appointment.4
While the collection contains printed ephemera related to sex work such as police reports, pay stubs, performance notes, records of digital exchanges, and zines, this article is invested in its holdings of fashion. In amplifying the voices of sex workers, the collection draws attention to the “uniquely sexual register” of racism towards Asian women’s bodies, for which the erotic potential of apparel is a fitting vehicle.5 Through the frameworks of Asian American history, feminist and queer theory, archival theory, and fashion studies, I examine how Private Practices harnesses apparel as activism. Against traditions of policing, fashionable and otherwise, it unleashes powers in apparel that span the affectual, sensual, fantastical, oppressive, imaginative, fetishistic, sentimental, performative, and material. Placing private practices on a public stage, the collection substantiates the subjectivity of AAPI sex workers as long overlooked yet integral to any understanding of Asian American politics.
As I undress the framework of AAPI sex worker fashion, I parse the meanings of such items of attire as nameplate necklaces, bras and bibs, thongs, Pleasers, and pumps in a literally top-down direction across the body with an eye for the conventionally low, bad, and dirty. An archive of the body at a historical place of body work, Private Practices embodies the theory of “archives as repositories of affect, labor, emotion, and bodily trace.”6 These intimate and indelicate meanings tease possibilities for productive destabilizations of mainstream Asian American politics, archival institutions, and systems of gendered and racialized oppression that manufacture violence. In archiving those artifacts closest to the flesh, AAPI sex workers assert the presence of lives and livelihoods that refuse to be glossed over.
In 1870, some 150 years before the Atlanta shooting spree, the Act to Prevent Kidnapping and Importation of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes was passed in the state of California. This act allowed the state government to deny entry to any immigrant suspected to be a “lewd or debauched woman.”7 Ostensibly to protect prostitutes, who were viewed as sex slaves, “kidnapped... without their consent and against their will,” the act was a thinly veiled measure to advance state-sanctioned racism against Asian immigrants regardless of sex or actual status as sex worker.8
Following the act’s passing, all Asian female immigrants had to demonstrate that they were immigrating voluntarily and that they were “good person[s] of correct habits and good character.”9 In August 1874, twenty-two women who arrived in San Francisco from Hong Kong on the steamship Japan were deemed deviant from these standards. Found suspect when inspected by the immigration commissioner, the women were transferred to the Fourth District Court in San Francisco, where “lawyers for the state brought in witnesses to identify, through an analysis of the women’s clothing and demeanor, whether the women were wives or prostitutes.”10 Among these witnesses were missionaries Dr. Otis Gibson and Ira Condit, who gave “expert testimony” which included “identifying a woman as a prostitute based on her dress.”11
Under dark outer garments, Gibson testified, Chinese prostitutes wore gaudy silk clothing: “Probably yellow or pink or red, and some figures on it of some kind.”12 Condit alleged that prostitutes wore “a gayer style of dress, a dress with yellow in it, and brighter colors.”13 Fang Hoy, a resident of San Francisco Chinatown, further advised that the typical prostitute “dresses just like rich folks…[with] [w]ide sleeves, and have what we call a fancy border on the dress.”14 These assessments of character based on ostentation and class pretensions in style, even as they acknowledge the illegibility of Chinese characters, were apparently proof enough to identify prostitutes at a glance. Gibson stated: “The flowers on that girl at the end, and her whole get up indicate without a doubt; the others haven’t got that on…In half of their cases there is evidence to my mind that they belong to that class from the clothing they have on.”15
The case that became known as Chy Lung v. Freeman culminated in the release of the women from custody after their appeal to the Supreme Court, but the proceedings that marked the women as “lewd or debauched” in the first place reveal the power of appearances in determining the fate of Asian women. Though fashion is often charged with frivolity, its uses in the court of law and public opinion alike are profound. Flimsy assumptions based on appearance have historically been used to class, rank, and cast aspersions on Asian women regardless of their actual status as sex workers. At the same time, as legal scholar Kerry Abrams suggests, the latter was no more than a triviality, given the implicit understanding that “Chinese women were innately prostitutes”16 and “enslaved prostitutes.”17
Prostitute, concubine, or wife in a polygamous marriage, all Asian women were assumed prostitutes and slaves at heart. Abrams identifies how practices of prostitution and polygamy were believed to evidence an underlying “slave-like” mentality that made the Chinese race “unfit for self-governance,” tying practices of sexual transgression with lack of agency.18 This tie-in has remained in place to the present day, as responses to the Atlanta attack have pushed the narrative that all sex workers are victims of sex trafficking. Not only does this strip sex workers of agency but reenacts racist tropes about the passivity of Asian women. It also promotes the policing of Asian female bodies as objects in need of rescue, censure, and criminalization, without respect for the individual woman’s context and choice.19
Interrogation into Asian women’s practice of sex work was thus a piece of theatre, yet Asian women to this day are still cast as sexually suspect. Apparel is often known as a second skin, and from Gibson and Condit’s classing of Asian women by yellow apparel it is a quick slip to the Yellow Peril that all Asian women represented. The 1870 Act was a precursor to the infamous Page Act of 1875, which “banned the immigration of women who had entered into contracts for ‘lewd and immoral purposes’” and effectively excluded all Asian women under the assumption of prostitution.20 And as the stereotype that all Asian women were prostitutes continued to be propagated through deportation laws in 1903, 1907, and 1917, “no Chinese, regardless of her social standing, was safe from harassment.”21 Given the illegibility of different Asian ethnicities to racists, let alone the finer points of Asian faces and fashions, the statement transcends ethnicity and era.
In the 2021 attack on Asian massage parlors in Atlanta, the shooter mentioned no racial motivation but claimed to be afflicted with sexual addiction. Responding to speculation about whether the victims were in fact sex workers, Asian and migrant sex-worker collective Red Canary Song wrote in a statement: “Whether or not they ever provided sexual services, we know that as massage workers, they were subjected to sexualized violence stemming from the hatred of sex workers, Asian women, working class people, and immigrants.”22 Their names were Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, and Yong Ae Yue, and the fraught intersections they lived in, as Private Practices asserts, are inextricable from any analysis of Asian sexuality and survival.
Read against an endless pageant of unimaginative and unflattering representations of Asian American women, the significance of AAPI sex workers asserting agency over their own style of representation through the Private Practices archive cannot be overstated. Far too often, in portrayals from film to fashion and pornography to pop culture, Asian women are ornamental “Orientals” who “exist to provide sex, color, and texture in what is essentially a white man’s world.”23 As literary scholar Traise Yamamoto argues, “for all their visibility as sexually exotic objects, Asian American women remain invisible as subjects.”24 Yet when Asian American women express their sexuality in non-normative styles, they are criticized as accessories to their own fetishization and oppression of other Asian women.
This lends a whole new meaning to the terms “fashion policing” and “fashion victim.” As Chy Lung v. Freeman shows, Asian women have long been victims of fashion. A fashion victim is defined as “a person who follows popular trends in dress and behavior slavishly” (emphasis added).25 This definition denotes both tastelessness and insatiability, and may be used to describe the purported sartorial and sexual lusts of the stereotypical Asian woman.26 Fashion victim and sex slave, vacuous and promiscuous, she strains the strictures of proper gender norms and good taste. This very lack of respect for sartorial, sexual, and moral codes, however, suggests a productive nonconformity. It is a refusal to be quiet that recalls again the case of Chy Lung v. Freeman. When the women were ordered back to the custody of the steamship master, one “very obstinate and saucy” woman, Ah Fook, protested and precipitated “noisy demonstrations” which prompted the judge to clear the courtroom.27 Ah Fook’s refusal to submit discreetly to the word of law, like the flowers and colors of her companion’s clothing, was loud, provocative, and unapologetic. These florid statements of style and selfhood refuse the stereotype that Asian women have never been able to speak for themselves.
“To what extent can the struggles and agency of sex workers be voiced through cultural productions when they are frequently the objects, not subjects, of representation?” asks literary scholar Lily Wong.28 In answer to Wong’s question, Private Practices intercedes as an assertion of the subjectivity of AAPI sex workers. Against prescriptive sexual codes and calls for increased policing, the collection is an audacious foray into the unruly swathes of AAPI artistry and identity. Interfiled with and against police reports, arrest dockets, complaints from neighbors, racist email exchanges, and other records of oppression, are artworks, apparel, accessories, photographs, performance notes, and more items of ephemera produced by AAPI sex workers. Metadata is authored by the artists themselves rather than the archivist, and offers glints of narrative and rich associations in first-person voices. Private Practices was in part organized by Kayla Noriko Tange and LACA against expanded police presence in LACA’s shared neighborhood of Chinatown and engages themes of surveillance and performativity. Creators turn an artistic, analytic, and archival eye on interacting and interlaced facets of their own identity: Asian, Asian American, woman, femme, queer, artist, sex worker, and performer. Placed in conversation as part of an ever expanding archival collection, the artifacts they produce offer a glimpse into sophisticated practices of identity and community formation that have long been extant, but only recently garnered the critical attention from institutions and archival authorities.29
To speak about AAPI sex worker subjectivity is to unashamedly face the pleasure and pain of sexual representation. It is to pull apart the very fabric of Asian identity, and disinter ideologies so deeply set that they seem to wear away at the distinction between the flesh and its ideological wrappings. As film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu compellingly argues, “the female Asian body seemingly cannot be racially marked without hyper-sexual encoding.”30 Disavowing the ambiguities of sexuality and representation only works to further “discipline, police, and demand that Asian/American women become docile subjects who must abhor their own sexual racial carnalities and subjectivities as racial traitorship and false consciousness.”31 As much as sexuality can be a site of racial bondage, it can also open onto meanings tender and transcendent. Shimizu explicitly argues that facing up to hypersexuality in representation is unavoidable for any Asian/American woman invested in understanding her identity.32 If the “category of sex sticks to the female body,” the body of the Asian American woman is tacked with accumulations of racialized, stigmatized, and traumatized sexuality.33 This sensation of stickiness is articulated by Wong as she applies feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed’s concepts of “stick” and “surface” to the Chinese sex worker’s body, as a site to which affect attaches, and which attracts complex affects and collective intimacies.34 In this reading, sexuality constricts, but also acts as a creative force in identity and community formation.35 And it possesses the potential to move in fluid and playful ways that allow new readings of and relations with racial markings.
In this context, fashion emerges as the ideal vehicle for play with the compelling contradictions of fantasy and power. Fashion, at all levels, has long been influenced by the styles of sex workers. As fashion historian Rebecca Arnold acknowledges, “The dubious woman could be more outlandish in her dress, and more experimental.”36 Today, the playful paradoxes of stripper fashion continue to push the envelope, dealing deftly with slippages of public and private, attraction and resistance, pleasure and provocation. In a recent magnificent example of fashion as activism, protesting dancers at Star Garden in North Hollywood were dressed as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations at the club, such as “broken glass, bed bugs in the furniture, a hole in the stage, a rusty nail on the stage,” as well as “sexy OSHA inspectors and seductive rats.”37 Dressing as objects of displeasure, they revived burlesque in the original sense of a literary or dramatic genre powered by mockery, grotesque, and “extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment.”38 This kind of engagement with injustice through sexual wit, style, and surrealistic humor is typical of sex-worker activism, which is increasingly seeing a powerful AAPI presence.
Through hypersexuality, Asian American artist and activist sex workers have been able to “recast wholly different dynamics of sexuality that are also about self-fashioning, laughter, recognition, and redemption.”39 Progressively more are leveraging fashion as a vehicle for activism. Sacred Wounds, co-produced by Private Practices curator Coco Ono and artist Wang Newton, is a virtual performance that subverts Asian stereotypes through erotic ritual and often surrealistic costumery.40 Red Canary Song, a grassroots coalition of Asian massage workers, displayed an installation at the Sex Workers Pop Up Art Show in New York City, which also featured such pieces as artist and sexologist Midori’s InVocation, a textile sculpture assembled from garments, bondage ropes, and other worn and used possessions of queer sex workers.41 Private Practices joins the line-up in an archival outfit that recognizes the historical significance of this phenomenon as well as its cultural and aesthetic attractions. Each item of apparel is prized as a living artifact of Asian American sex-worker life, while also being reanimated through a fantastical skein of associations with celebrity, pop culture, fairytales, fetishes, stereotypes, and other icons of Asian American imagination and aspiration. As sex workers take over the archive, they infuse it with sex, color, and texture in thoroughly Asian American terms.
More than mere fabric, fashion has historically been perceived as “a kind of language” or “an abstract symbolic system,” as cultural theorists Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson have argued. While I am invested in fashion as “not merely textual and discursive but embodied,” I also read it as a spectacular lexicon that transcends linguistic, racial, and gendered divides, and often speaks from a place of repressed or non-traditional knowledge.42
Sealed carefully in a small zip-lock bag, a glittering nameplate necklace spelling out “Whore” in rhinestone-studded silver cursive is one of the most audacious items in Private Practices. Titled Throwin up the W (Tupac of Prostitution Dayz), a reference to the rapper Tupac’s posthumous album Better Dayz, the piece was donated by Mariko Passion, a Japanese-Chinese American performance artist, activist, educator, singer, and self-proclaimed “whore revolutionary.”43 Passion is originally from California, where to “throw up the W” hand sign is a show of West Coast pride by hip-hop artists.44 Styling herself “the Tupac of prostitution” in the spirit of her visionary activism, she reinscribes the vernacular sign in silver as W for Whore, claiming whoredom as her cause and culture.
Nameplate jewelry, an artifact of hip-hop, Black, and Latinx culture, is often associated with the genre of “ghetto fabulousness.”45 Ostentatious, flashy, obvious, glittery, and exquisitely tacky, it represents an embrace of “conspicuous hypervisibility” that counters the systemic invisibility experienced by marginalized communities as a result of the ongoing legacies of slavery, police violence, and institutional racism.46 Although they most commonly bear first names or endearments, nameplate jewelry is more than a statement of individual selfhood. Cultural anthropologist Marcel Rosa-Salas and editor Isabel Attyah Flower identify the accessory as an engagement with the “practice of the naming” and the “politics of recognition” that has historically signified Black pride, wealth, and power. Proclaiming the self as Whore, then, signals it as a prized identity, a lucrative profession, and an empowering practice.47 It also serves a practical purpose to further the continuation of the work by advertising it, though not necessarily its availability, to potential clients, and nameplate jewelry was indeed worn historically by street hustlers and pimps.48
If “[t]he act of ‘having taste’ through the display of a ‘refined’ style is a critical component of American respectability politics,” nameplate jewelry is a deliberate embrace of “bad taste.”49 By engaging with this artifact of Black and Latinx culture, Passion aligns herself with the “wrong” kind of minority, traversing historic tensions between the Black and Asian communities that the model minority stereotype was designed to embed. She refuses to present as a stereotypically head-down, hard-working Asian immigrant whose labor is easily digestible and whose identity is assimilated into the American melting pot, if never quite accepted. Instead, she makes a statement of sexual transgression through fashion that affronts respectable palates and crosses racial aesthetic codes in a manner that could alternately be read as cultural celebration or appropriation.
If the chains of the necklace connote enslavement, they may act as a visual signifier of Asian women as sex slaves when worn by Passion. Yet just as nameplate jewelry recodes and co-opts the imagery of chains when worn by Black and brown folks, it also represents an unleashing for Passion, who once asserted, “I am not a trafficked slave” but “a bad bitch with no accent.”50 Distancing herself from stereotypes of Asians as passive victims and perpetual foreigners, she identifies herself instead as a Bad Asian, which cultural theorist Eve Oishi defines as “any Asian American who makes noise, acts nasty, or in any way flouts the expectations of racist stereotype.”51 Like Ah Fook’s “noisy demonstrations,”52 Throwin up the W is a loud proclamation of identity and resistance that spells trouble for “the cultural expectation of Asians as silent, docile, and ‘good.’”53 In its place is a naming of Asian American subjectivity as unrepentantly bad—“Bad as in ‘badass.’”54
If speaking alone is a perverse act for AAPI sex workers, another artifact from the archive, Blowjob Bib by Kayla Noriko Tange, stretches the taboo of orality to its limit. Blowjob Bib is a thin plastic bib printed with the words “BLOWJOB BIB” and a graphic of pouty, open lips. The text and filling of the mouth are white on cherry red, with the rounded letters outlined in “self-applied rhinestones to jazz it up,” as Tange notes.55 Tange, also known by her stage name Coco Ono, is an artist and burlesque performer whose name pays tribute to Yoko Ono and Coco Chanel.56 Lauded as the “Erotic Conceptualist,” she was born in South Korea and adopted by a Japanese-American family who were forced into internment camps during WWII. With Blowjob Bib, she blows the lid off sexual stereotypes of “the infantile and hyper-feminine Asian woman.”57
Infantilization of Asian women, though it may now christen itself paraphilic infantilism or age play in kink circles, is not a newborn fetish. Sunny Woan, boiling down the hyper-sexed, under-aged Asian woman, describes how “[t]he Asian woman of White male sexual fantasies toddles into view—‘small, weak, submissive and erotically alluring.’”58 In a 1990 Gentleman’s Quarterly article entitled “Oriental Girls” by Tony Rivers, the author salivates over an explicitly pedophilic fantasy of an Asian sexual partner: “Her face—round like a child’s… eyes, almond-shaped for mystery, black for suffering, wide-spaced for innocence, high cheekbones swelling like bruises, cherry lips.”59 Through its unsavory coupling of children’s clothing and adult consumption, Blowjob Bib plays with the stomach-turning implications of these sexual tastes and launches an artful critique in the face of it.
With its child-like alliteration, bubbly font, and shiny rhinestones, Blowjob Bib is the spitting image of little girl innocence. The messiness of the implied act, paired with the girlishly fastidious garment, makes propriety perverse. Yet the thin front of sexual etiquette hides a quite different manner of hunger: not merely sexual voraciousness but vorarephilia, or “the erotic desire to consume or be consumed by another person.”60 Bibs are fastened around the neck to prevent spilling food while eating, and the meal suggested here is the male genitalia. As the act of oral sex may literally translate to food on the table for sex workers, the boundaries between sex, sustenance, and survival become fluid, as well as the question of who is satisfying whom. The mouth takes on an overblown quality, duplicated and exaggerated on the garment. Writing on the race-based casting of Asian women for the role of the sex worker Kim in the play Miss Saigon, Woan suggests that to producers and those in power, “all Asian women… are interchangeable and usable body parts.”61 Blowjob Bib embodies “the affect of these ‘detachable parts’ of the body… [which] ‘trouble the conceptual opposition between person and thing.’”62 Playing with self-objectification and subjectivity, the garment parodies what bell hooks calls the “consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.”63 With its impudent appetite, it frustrates the easy consumption of sexual tropes about Asian women, rendering them ever so much harder to swallow.
As each of these archival records show, Private Practices is an insistently mouthy collection that makes vocal and visual statements through fashion. In a final play on orality, I analyze the Divine Impersonation Bra, another of Tange’s works. Red, racy, rhinestone-studded, this unusual undergarment features protuberant rubbery lips puckering from the center of each cup. Each outlandish pair of lips, painted red and surrounded by pink skin, is adorned with a wart under the lower lip; the nipples hidden under fabric are thus doubly represented by protruding lips and zits. A small red bow sits daintily between the mammary/mouths in stark contrast to their sexual aggressiveness. Tange wore this grotesque marriage of flesh and fabric when performing as Coco Ono in an impersonation of the “radically transgressive” drag queen Divine, known for starring in cult films by John Waters like Pink Flamingos.64
With Blowjob Bib, Tange unpicked the first stitch in the narrative that “‘good’ Asian women are ‘childlike, submissive, silent, and eager for sex’—with men” (emphasis added).65 Divine Impersonation Bra further unravels the fantasy in which the ideal Asian woman “not only exemplifies hyper-sexuality, but hyper-heterosexuality, male-centered and male-dominated.”66 Masquerading as the magnificently queer, fat, white performer, Tange abets Divine’s mission to play havoc not only with heterosexuality, but all notions of sexuality, gender, and bodily purity. Far from aspiring to gender conformity, Divine was known to “instead exaggerate feminine traits to the point of becoming grotesque.”67 The Divine Impersonation Bra, with its ostentatious orifices and fabricated breasts, gains a grade up in layers of burlesque gender play when worn on Tange’s Asian female body. Viewed in the archive, the empty bust padded with tissue paper, it takes on even further artifice and archness as a performance of femininity thrust to its gorgeously freakish extreme.
In an Instagram teaser clip, Tange dances in the Divine Impersonation Bra with glittery red tears pouring from her eyes like blood. Wielding an assortment of Asian produce, she dances through hyperspace while translucent images of her own tear-stained face, decapitated head, and isolated red lips are imposed over her body and bok choy.68 Shimizu has persuasively argued: “In claiming perverse subject positions, [artists and creators] offer critiques of the silence and normativity that typically stifle Asian/American women.”69 As bodily transgressions and boundary confusions abound, Tange embodies the performing of Asian futurity and queering of Asian American female sexuality from within the field of “unruly representations.”70
Having opened the mouth of the archive, I now go on to analyze the lower regions of its body and the foundations for its being, moving from etymologies to lace thongs.
In its first manifestation, the archive was the house of the patriarch. The word archive can be traced back to the Greek archon, the name of a magistrate in ancient Athens.71 Archives in their original function served as sites for the recording and governance of history, property, and commerce by the state and its laws. The field of critical archival studies has analyzed how this hegemonic architecture of state knowledge production not only excluded and marginalized oppressed groups, but articulated strategies for their violent oppression. Information studies scholar Tonia Sutherland describes a “carceral archive” that reproduces the logic of chattel slavery through systems of classification, control, and containment, and “appeals to white panic constructed around notions of order and ‘safety.’”72 Labeled as threats to the prevailing order, Asian American sex workers have had their lives and livelihoods constrained through both the historic exclusion of Asian presence in the U.S. and the ongoing criminalization of sex workers. Like so many marginalized groups, they have appeared on the archival record only within the category of deviance.73 Thus AAPI sex workers occupy a vexed position within the archive and a relationship irrevocably marked by historical injustice.
Archives are not innocent but, as material culture researcher Ellen Sampson reminds us, “structuring forces: sites on which particular power structures and knowledges are reproduced and maintained.”74 It itself is structured according to Eurocentric and patriarchal logics of what constitutes knowledge and memory, which prize textual documents over embodied and performative practices.75 Within this context, Private Practices represents a practice of archiving from the margins that does not erase historical traumas but attempts to do the reparative work of re-fashioning the archive. In placing the apparel of a long-stigmatized profession, race, and sex into spaces traditionally closed to them, the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive and Kayla Noriko Tange provoke the very structure, scope, and collecting style of the archive as archon. By their very appearance, the used and lived-in apparel of AAPI sex workers makes of the archive “the vertiginous skin where all sorts of onto-political ‘re-writings’ take place… including the re-writing of the archive itself.”76 In making room for those artifacts that sit closest to the skin, Private Practices also recognizes, as fashion studies scholar Susan Kaiser suggests, that fashion is a platform that allows typically suppressed embodied subjectivities to come into shape and emerge from silence.77
Fashion demands reading as a situated, relational practice. Cultural sociologist Paul Sweetman views fashion as active in “helping to construct and reconstruct individual subjectivities, whilst simultaneously forging an affectual or experiential relationship between various actors involved.”78 While working narrowly as a platform for the subjectivity of AAPI sex workers, Private Practices is also a more expansive community engagement that “asks how artists, archives, and Chinatown community members can effectively collect together.”79 The archive conceives of itself as a “living collection,” and as such is attentive to the permeabilities of those living history in real time.80 The racialized leer of sexual exploitation reaches across time as it intrudes under the outer garments and into the private practices of Asian women. The language of federal court in 1875 transfers almost seamlessly to the present day: “Nor is there any difference made between the woman whose lewdness consists in private and unlawful indulgence, and the woman who publicly prostitutes her person for hire.”81 As Asian American women’s bodies, appearances, and voices continue to be policed at every juncture, the tandem hyper-visibility and invisibility that plagues Asian American women is part of our lived experience.
Taking issue with the appropriation of Asian fashions for this very irony, feminist legal theorist Lynn Lu argues that it offers up Asian bodies and images for public consumption while disregarding the lived reality of being Asian in America. Lu argues, “[o]nly the stylish surface of Asianness, and not the realities of Asian experience of existence, are in vogue.”82 Fashion’s careless consumption of “fetishistic, fashionable orientalism” thus reinscribes the image of Asian women as attractive but passive and exotic victims.83 Sex workers are silenced in much the same style as “orientalism, with its metonym the harem,” is exploited as a source for spectacle and style inspiration.84 In the same fashion, sex worker and scholar Jayne Swift addresses how femme and sex worker aesthetics and subjectivities have been appropriated by the mainstream, even as practicing sex workers continue to face disproportionate rates of stigmatization, criminalization, and violence.85 These “constant existential threats sex workers face,”86 like the daily pain of appearance that Asian American women experience, cannot be assumed as easily as “tricking out” in Pleasers and qipaos (the platform heels famously associated with strippers and an elegant traditional Chinese dress). Here, “tricking out” is used deliberately as a term once used to refer to preparing sex workers for their “trick” or client, and now used generally to mean adornment or accessorizing, as well as in the sense of being tricked.
Against such Orientalist and whorephobic appropriations, Private Practices approaches the AAPI sex-worker experience from within. With a tender eye for the lived experience of bodily artifacts, the collection expresses itself as an “an archive of affect.”87 Within the space where Asian massage workers once labored, “the archive teems with agencies: with bodies waiting to affect you.”88 Affects, as Lily Wong theorizes, “are not simply private states of expression; they are public practices that constitute social relations” and may be harnessed as “a politics of emotional mobilization—the power to move and be moved by others.”89 Because dress cannot be separated from the living body it dresses, the experience of embodiment is intertwined with the appearance of apparel, and apparel can be powerfully affective.90 As much of the archival apparel in Private Practices were once used in performance acts, they can also be considered ephemera, which queer scholar José Esteban Muñoz proposed as “traces of lived experience and performances of lived experience, maintaining experiential politics and urgencies long after these structures of feeling have been lived.”91 Ephemera are significant, too, as a means for marginalized groups to record history outside of oppressive institutions and to evade dangerous visibility.92 At a time when Asian bodies have been rendered hypervisible by racist discourse, the decision to assert visibility on our own terms is an act of radical resistance that puts our bodies on the line.
In Private Practices, costumes worn during performances and sexual acts reflect experiential truths about sexual labor and the affect underpinning its aesthetics. A lacy undergarment titled Red Thong, I Love Wang Newton Pin, Fake Rose is described as “Wang Newton’s red thong used to wipe sweat off the forehead.”93 Hailing from Taiwan with an upbringing in Midwest America, Wang Newton is a charismatic drag king, emcee, and comedian.94 A “globe-trotting ladykiller and lounge lizard,” he is often pictured in Instagram posts cheekily holding up pairs of woman’s lace panties in addition to sexually laden props like cigars and microphones.95 More than an item to flash and flaunt, however, the panties are also repurposed as handkerchiefs, to dab away sweat from the glare of the limelight.96
Dropping the act for a moment in an interview, Newton noted: “There’s definitely a ‘who we are as Asians and females’ and ‘how we should act’ thing.”97 With the mantle of representation falling especially heavy on the rare Asian drag king, “[a] billion people and their ancestors is a hefty weight to carry” for Newton.98 Lived identity drapes heavily on the body, and Newton states flatly, “I’m exhausted talking about gender and race.”99 Thus in a single pair of flimsy red lace panties, dampened not with arousal but exertion, may be read all the existential weight of sexual performance. Affixed with a pin of a grinning Wang Newton and an artificial rose, folded neatly, and put to rest in plastic, Red Thong, I Love Wang Newton Pin, Fake Rose functions as both a memento of sexual exploits and a memorial to sexual exhaustion.
Although the rose may only be a rose, and a fake one at that, it may also flower into a nexus of political implications spanning from the novel Rose, Rose, I Love You by Wang Zhenhe to Newton’s rumored appearance at the Beijing Summer Olympics. When asked if he would perform the opening act and if it would not be “a no-no for a Taiwanese,” Newton smoothly responded, “Chinese politics, baby.”100 Answering simply that he was unable to turn down the high demand and keep up the peace, Newton’s response evokes and rejects the historically nationalistic trope of “Taiwan as prostitute” in need of redemption. Instead, it aligns with the sentiments of the sex-worker characters in Wang Zhenghe’s novel, who “ridicule discourses of national sovereignty altogether.”101 Apparel may appear to be depthless and dethroned, but like the punctum, or poignant part, of a photograph that “pricks” the viewer, it can puncture prevailing narratives about racial and identity narrative.102
In a further embodiment of the wear and tear of erotic performance, artifacts from artist Emily Christine Velez Nelms act as living examples of the afterlife of garments and their multi-generational care. Performance Garments contains “test prints of condition reports on silk,” describing efforts to preserve a “3-piece pink belly dancing costume” worn by Nelm’s grandmother.103 The report provides insight into the painstaking process of repairing and preserving archival garments, which includes vacuum cleaning on low setting with micro attachment brushes, removing easily degradable polyurethane foam from the costume, treating oxidation on the rhinestones, and other precisely executed steps. Placing the process of archival and conservation work itself on display, the artifact suggests an attentiveness to labor and the materiality of history. In making visible the underpinnings of historical productions, it gestures at the politics of how and which of these material forms are preserved, and to what ends.
Photo of Emily in Grandmother’s Garments, meanwhile, suggests another form of prolonging life. In the photo, a young woman with an ornamental headpiece in her bobbed black hair stands with her back to the camera and hands resting on her pearled bralette, looking provocatively at the lens over her shoulder.104 She wears a matching set of performance garments made intricately from strings of pearls, with a train that appears to be made of chiffon. Through this enigmatic photo of “[g]randmother’s performance garments worn by the granddaughter,”105 Nelms extends the life of both the garments and the performance across historical contexts, wearers, and audiences. Together, Nelms’ artifacts exemplify archival practice and artistic interventions in the archive as forms of care work, as collections like Private Practices tend to long-neglected histories and stigmatized communities.
Making space for softness in similar style, two further items demonstrate the depth of the affective flows and relationalities mapped by Private Practices. Though less apparel than accessories, sexual than sentimental, they are small indices of the affective archives and lived experiences of sex workers.
Hello Kitty Towel from Mariko Passion is a small hand or face towel printed with Hello Kitty cats and bears with red hearts pierced by arrows. It also bears cheery exclamations such as “You have a way of brightening my day!” and “Together in fun forever!”, speaking to sterile stereotypes of Asian cuteness as well as expectations of care and emotional labor from sex workers. Lightly used to where the fabric is no longer entirely white, it is also tinged with a sense of unexpected sweetness as a record of simple pleasures and self-care.
Kayla Ballet Bag is a purple drawstring bag bearing the hand-embroidered name of Kayla above a small patchwork picture of a teddy bear in a pink tutu. Tange describes it as such: “My childhood ballet bag made [sic] my grandmother. I used this bag while stripping to hold my shoes.”106 This artifact is endearing as a signifier of craftiness, creativity, and care between two Asian women across generations, locations, and identities as sex workers or civilians. Though emptied now in the archive, Kayla Ballet Bag still holds sentimental affect, relational value, and, as a child’s possession in an archive of sex work, unexpected political import in humanizing frequently objectified workers.
As this archive of affect and sweat suggests, apparel has its own life and lineage, its contents and discontents. Like bodies, the artifacts degrade over time. They deserve to see care and attention in their lifetime, and to have that lifetime prolonged. To preserve its life is to recognize our own as worthy of preservation, witnessing, and appreciation, and to tailor strategies of care to those most exposed is to enfold us all in greater protections. As I argue, the treatment, rights, and protections of AAPI sex workers should be a primary concern of anyone invested in the Asian American community; not only because the fate of AAPI sex workers is plaited together with that all of Asian American women, but because the lives of AAPI sex workers are precious in their own right. Tending to their experiences, subjectivities, and desires is the least we can give to those who have given so very much, and led the way in transforming those structures that oppress us and hem us in.
In this final leg of the article, I address footwear in the archive in an analysis that roves from fantasy and fairytales to Asian American nightmares. In another instance of reddened garments replete with visceral meanings, model and dancer Lola Chan’s Red shoes speaks through its materiality. In 1870, the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed Fang Hoy’s description of prostitutes’ apparel “the badge of the scarlet sisterhood.”107 To this day, red is still stained with sexual associations, and red shoes “denot[e] women who transgress against acceptable feminine norms.”108 These norms can refer both to patriarchal and feminist standards of what is appropriate to wear. High heels violate the patriarchal ideal of modesty, but they can also be considered a sign of self-victimization by women enslaved to patriarchy. Ironically, women who willingly walk in heels are seen as lacking agency. Worn by Asian women in particular, constricting footwear inevitably recalls the tradition of foot-binding.109 Asian women who “submit” to the “social prisons” of stilettos are pressed into a framework of anachronism and Orientalism, primitive-minded victims misfit in modernity.110 Red is the lingering stain of a bloody history.
If shoes are visual parallels and symbols of “female genitalia,” red may also index the loss of virginity.111 To display this defloration and bloody entry into maturity, then, is obviously taboo. The red of Chan’s stripper heels, well-loved and lived-in, is itself stained with scuff-marks and muck presumably from club floors. An index of glamour and grit, Red shoes attests that “lotus blossoms” bleed after all.112 They also sweat, and stain, and suffer rough treatment on the way to stages of pleasures and pain. Provocatively sexual, Red shoes arouses empathy for this walk of life as viewers are shown what it is like to be in the shoes of a sex worker. At the same time, the element of fantasy is ever present. In the sole of red shoes that travel far from home is also inevitably embedded the glittering myth of that most famous of red heels: Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939). So lodged are her heels in the landscape of American mythology that “any pair of red shoes that sparkles with sequins, glitter, or rhinestones now connects to the Garland ruby slippers.”113 A symbol of escapist fantasy, associations which have rendered it attractive to gay and queer imagery, Dorothy’s slippers signify the freedom to walk in the world of magic and still return home at a click of her heels.114 Unlike Chan with her strappy Red shoes, Dorothy can “slip the shoes on and off” and “slip into and out of a magical realm.”115 But the yellow brick road of sex work is neither easy to strut forth in or turn back from. And it is paved less with gold than with the pitfalls of Yellow Peril, still fixed in the infrastructure of the American sexual imagination.
While the fantasy of fashion can seem to skip glibly past political realities, returning to the materiality of apparel reminds us of what is at stake. Philosopher Kate Soper understands apparel as bearing “melancholic witness to the mortality and subjection to biological process which we share with the rest of nature… it is arguably this combination of proximity with the organic body and alterity from it that is responsible for the poignancy of lost or no longer needed clothing.”116 The melancholia of apparel is all the more moving in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, when in a repeat of history, Asian-American bodies, the spaces they inhabit, and their cultural productions have again been cast as sources of racial contagion.117 As the racist logic that “Asian Americans are the virus” and thus must be controlled is perpetuated, artistic practices like Private Practices uplift dreams of mobility and possibilities for freedom from the starting point of the body and its adornments.118
Reaffirming the affective power of tactile connection in a time of isolation, the archive reactivates the works in their various roles and guises as performance pieces, personal items, and archival records. As live acts cannot be continued in physical spaces, apparel and ephemera extend the life of performance in an archive still leaping with meanings. Apparel in the archive stretches perception beyond the visual and encodes, extends, and transcends the materiality of the body, while remaining embodied and situated. It gestures beyond itself, as in the case of the Montreal Heels (2016), donated by Kayla Noriko Tange to Private Practices, which acts as a prop that spurs a narrative about relationships and relocation. Pressing the red feathered and bejeweled heels into service as a narrative vehicle, Tange recounts how she wore the shoes at the Montreal Burlesque Festival, which leads into another narrative thread about various men starting with a graffiti artist from Montreal and ends with Tange referring to another item she incorporated into her performances: “My bejeweled leaf blower which I took with me to Canada.”119 In the archives of affect, migrations and meanings continue to circulate well past the falling of the curtain.
More than mere footnotes in the archive, fashion forms and builds up the body of Private Practices. In another pair of revealing footwear, Tange recounts the exquisite experience of wearing Coco Ono Mirrored Shoes as “the way that the light reflects looks like you are floating.”120 Yet the shoes themselves are scuffed and worn with dark imprints on the heel and forefoot, suggesting long use and hard work, a balancing act between beauty and pain that puts a fine line on the price of pleasure. In these footprints limned with an accumulation of glitter live the “archives of the ephemeral”: Muñoz’s “traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things” that make such “vital, and necessary, historical resources.”121 As Elizabeth Ezra and Catherine Wheatley contend, shoes are “floating signifiers of the fashion world.” As such, “[t]hey would say a lot even if they didn’t have tongues.”122
An ethereal echo of Lola Chan’s devilishly red Red Shoes, Coco Ono Mirrored Shoes evokes nothing so much as Cinderella’s “glass slipper,” with its “visually permeable insubstantiality.”123 Tange writes in the description for the item: “These clear shoes were one of my first mirrored shoes.”124 Tange’s first time wearing and experimenting the mirrored shoe fits neatly into readings of the fairytale glass slipper as representing “Cinderella’s prized virginity”125 though she also mentions that she possesses multiple pairs of this same style.126 Another uncanny match between Tange’s description and the original fairytale is the curious mention of squirrels. Tange continues to say, “I was testing out the shiny [sic] shoe. This is a tactic used to attract the squirrels” (emphases added). Here, “squirrel” most likely refers to “a promiscuous man-whore, who constantly seeks sexual pleasure which he calls a ‘nut.’”127 It can also stand for such stock characters as “a stupid, shortsighted person,” “a careful heroin user,” “a criminal,” and “a psychoanalyst,” any of which could be a potential client; “squirrely,” moreover, means to be easily distractable. But the term squirrel is apparently bristling with sexual meanings, including prostitute, vagina, or female pubic hair.128 In the story of Cinderella, it is significant as scholars have speculated that the famous glass shoe may owe its memorable appearance to a misstep in translation, as the material of the shoes slipped from vair (squirrel’s fur) to verre (glass).129 In this sense, the slippage from vair to verre, may suggest the removal of hair from the pubis, rendering it visible and available—and juvenilely so. Transparency implies trustworthiness, implies innocence, implies vulnerability. As “Cinderella’s glass slipper provides a titillating glimpse of the wearer’s naked feet,” there is an unmistakable element of voyeurism and fetishization in the interplay of purity and provocation.130 Agency, above all, is at stake in the transfiguration from animate to inanimate, animal to ornament.
Cinderella is a story of sexual ownership, exchange, and leverage, in which “[her] power is an explicitly sexual one, as the glass slipper allows the young girl to accede to matrimonial union.”131 As such, it is a favorite narrative trope in sex-worker stories, which often features rags-to-riches arcs. Cinderella’s power and her future are constrained by the sexual economy she lives within, yet she is able to secure both from within its structure. Her heels both hinder physical mobility and facilitate economic mobility, much as sex workers today climb the social ladder on Pleasers. In an ironic pairing of sexual transgression and conservative immigrant rhetoric, stripper heels turn into the bootstraps by which Asian American women transform their fates by dint of hard work and a can-do attitude. Here, it is worth noting that Cinderella’s sisters, who possess no such sexual exceptionalism or extraordinary selflessness, are excluded from this aspirational narrative.
Playing fast and loose and footsy with fantasy and fashion, Private Practices points our attention to the delicate dynamic between walking the walk and talking the talk. Jayne Swift contends that high heels “articulate a uniquely femme- and sex-worker inspired approach to fashion.”132 Launched from within social norms of femininity, and flying in the face of conventional feminist standards, this expression is one “in which the presumed ‘harmony’ between self-explanation and self-presentation is productively destabilized.”133 The politics of destablization is one that AAPI women might be well served in harnessing, as we find our footing on the stage of racialized hypersexuality. In the mirrored surface of a pair of stripper heels, the entire edifice of Asian American politics teeters and meets its reflection.
A provocative archive of pleasure and pain, Private Practices acts as a one-of-a-kind platform for the self-representation of Asian American sex workers. In these intimate readings of items of apparel from its collection, resonances, associations, and affects stick and surface. Each item holds a multi-faceted story and role as strands in a collective narrative of Asian-American artfulness, resistance, and survival.
Yet while fashion may be an attractive vehicle to “articulate embodied subjectivities that are otherwise stifled or muted,” I also want to acknowledge that apparel is an “epistemology of ambiguity.”134 Fashion may be made to speak, but it rarely speaks for itself. Instead, as Ellen Sampson argues: “‘Unknowing’ and its companions ‘fantasy and speculation’ are central to the experience of the dress archive.”135 Assigning too much speaking power to apparel takes its own risks and licenses.
For AAPI sex workers, the smallest claims on speech and sight can be politically revealing, yet also leave the individual exposed to harm. Hypervisibility is both livelihood and death. As Muñoz writes on ephemera, the reason that this “kind of invisible evidence” exists in its ephemeral form “has everything to do with the fact that leaving too much of a trace has often meant that the queer subject has left herself open for attack.”136 Muñoz’s piercing observation about the visibility of sexuality raises critical questions for Private Practices, an engagement with fashion and performance that perhaps privileges the experience of those sex workers that can afford to be identified. Tange herself identifies as a conceptual artist, and other figures within the collection like Mariko Passion identify, for instance, with such roles as “Love Worker,” “Tantric Goddess,” and “Erotic Conceptualist.” These performative roles and perhaps elevations raise questions about the dressing up of sex work for public availability in the museum and archival space. As Swift rightfully points out, “burlesque draws upon and consolidates a hierarchical boundary in which burlesque is figured as high culture and stripping is low culture.”137 To invest burlesque with cultural capital and elevate its conceptual qualities may simultaneously downgrade the undeniable labor of sex work, and its role as burlesque’s progenitor.138
In her important early essay Maiden Voyage on Asian American sexuality, sociologist Dana Takagi called on Asian American creators to honor the “facets of experience” that modulate specific identities as ever-shifting, interwoven threads in a wider tapestry of Asian American life.139 Red Canary Song, in their response to the 2021 Atlanta attack, follows her in warning of the dangers of visibility: “As this unprecedented outcry brings more attention to the violence Asian migrant women are subjected to, this increased visibility and the community reaction as a result could help or harm the very migrant Asian women we are concerned with supporting.”140 Protesting demands for increased policing, surveillance, and criminalization in the names of the victims, Red Canary Song reminds us that “[e]very facet of their identities informs the violence they and other migrant Asian women were and are subjected to.”141 The racialized and gendered violence they faced were specific to each of their identities, and the intersections of those identities, as Asian women, immigrants, working class people, and sex workers. One does not speak for all, and one style of power may not fit all.
As lush with nuance and potentiality as Private Practices is, there are necessarily limits. I follow Lynn Lu in suggesting that subversive engagements with hypersexuality, fantasy, and fetish must be sustained, expansive, and ever-shifting to qualify as more than empty play. Lu proposes, “when this occurs on seemingly infinite levels with seemingly infinite responses and transformations, the effect can be dizzying enough to disrupt and change the terms of old debates forever.”142 As Asian American femininity and futurity participates in infinite self-fashioning, fashion is only one of many tools in her activism and actualization. While continuing to collect apparel and other artifacts, LACA and Tange aspire to activate Private Practices not only as a community archive but a form of community building. Plans are in the works to conduct more oral histories with AAPI sex workers and collaborate with Kim Ye to archive drawings from the SWOP LA (Sex Workers Outreach Project LA)’s Making Our Community Safer: The Massage Worker Outreach Program.143 In this sense, Private Practices is truly a living archive and vehicle for creating forms of community and institutional support, relationships, and resources that ultimately uplift the lives of AAPI sex workers.
As the name of the collection suggests, what Private Practices achieves is the radical manifestation of ongoing practices long kept from public view, whether for safety and discretion or through stigma and oppression. The preservation and presentation of these hidden histories suggest a new openness to the stories of Asian American sex workers at a time of both ever-more heightened persecution and visibility, when more, too, is required to transform symbolics into actual change for sex workers on the ground. For now, the stage is set and the archive is open, private no more.
Chelsea Shi-Chao Liu (she/her) is an MA student in History & Archival Studies at Claremont Graduate University. She holds a BA in English Literature from Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include Asian American studies, gender and sexuality, and body studies.